GILBERT, W.Va. — James “Buck” Harless, who grew the Gilbert Lumber Company into a multimillion-dollar conglomerate and became a philanthropic force in West Virginia, died at his home Wednesday night. He was 94.
Family members said Harless was in good spirits, but his health began to fail suddenly Christmas night.
“He would say things were just wearing out,” according to West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney.
Harless graduated from Gilbert High School and son went to work as a coal miner. He gave up the job in 1947 and became manager and part owner of a sawmill in Gilbert.
The Harless-run lumber company eventually became International Industries and included a wide range of natural resources assets, but was primarily based on timber and coal. The business also included hotels, real estate, and manufacturing.
Harless became a philanthropist to many causes. He provided funding for a large number of charities in Mingo County and surrounding communities through the years.
“I would shudder to think at the amount of money he gave to charity that he never took credit for,” said Speedy Bevins, general manager of WVOW Radio in Logan. “A lot of his donations he would give in the honor of or memory of, but I’m sure he gave away millions and never said anything about it.”
Harless was credited with creating hundreds of jobs in the region with his various companies. He was also a substantial contributor to West Virginia University and Marshall University.
“He didn’t want any attention about that,” Raney said. “He was always there for churches and choirs and universities. Goodness knows how many children he educated in West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Alabama.”
At WVU, Harless served on the Board of Governors and made donations creating professorships and scholarships in everything from athletics to health sciences. He was honored by the university as “Most Loyal Mountaineer” and “Order of the Vandalia.” He was awarded a number of honorary doctorate degrees from various institutions including WVU.
Although he was an iconic figure in southern West Virginia, most say he was best known for his unassuming nature about his wealth.
“He lived in Gilbert in a very simple house across the Guyandotte,” Bevins said. “There used to be a restaurant in Gilbert called Billy Ann’s and he went there for lunch every day. He was so approachable. If you met him and didn’t know who he was an struck up a conversation and then later learned that guy is a billionaire, you’d be dumb struck.”
Among the many causes he championed was healthcare for his neighbors. Harless indicated to WVU physician Jim Brick the university needed a clinic in southern West Virginia. Brick said Harless offered up a corner of the community center he built to house the clinic and it was packed with patients from the very first visit. Today, the clinic is a full-blown medical facility thanks to Harless.
“We have a real clinic with a laboratory, primary care, and specialists who come from not only WVU but also from Marshall,” Brick said. “This is a guy who could have lived anywhere he wanted in the world and he chose to live down there on the Guyandotte River in Gilbert, W.Va.”
Harless’ wealth didn’t come easy. He often talked about the struggles of just meeting payroll in the early days. But he stuck with his work and made his companies grow.
“He always said he didn’t have a lot of good sense, but he had the good sense to surround himself with good people who knew how to do things,” Raney remarked.
Raney said Harless had a different approach to his companies and how they conducted business.
“He was always on the leading edge and always willing to take those extra steps to do things just a little bit different and do a little bit more than was required to set the pace,” Raney explained. “Hopefully some of the lessons he taught us will stick.”
Harless was also politically active. He was involved in many state and local political races and often financially backed candidates. The most high profile political role he played came with his backing financially of George W. Bush. It was Harless’ early support for the then-Texas governor which was credited with helping Bush carry West Virginia during his first campaign for the presidency.
Two years ago Harless chronicled his remarkable legacy in an auto-biography, “A Most Fortunate Life.”